I remember many moons ago when my father-in-law, Ira Kipnis, attorney, author, professor, raconteur, musician and aficionado of food and wine, conferred upon me the great thinking, “Fiction is the other truth.” This statement becomes startlingly true when I experience an author who’s lived their life in a country fraught with political and social oppression. In countries outside our own, being female is a disadvantage. Independent thinking and feeling is criminal activity. Rights are not protected or guaranteed and sincere leaders are often assassinated or imprisoned. In an effort to obtain oneness people cast aside their sense of humanity as a necessary part of an ecosystem. Information structures in countries which allow this to happen, pull their plug out of the grid. No television or radio reportage. No pictures, no computers, censored documentation, no paper, no private gathering or conversations, no means of defense. What is left is martial law, piles of bodies and memories kept in the deepest recesses of the self. This issue of Bookisshh explores a work of fiction that is a conglomeration of several memories of an atrocious truth occurring in South Korea during 1980 when one dictator was destroyed and a destructive one took over and people gambled their lives standing up to them.
Human Acts by Han Kang
The work of Han Kang stands alone. Raw, tragic, and strangely beautiful, “Human Acts” bears unfortunate truths unutterable in her mother tongue or homeland. Reading through the copyright history, I notice this work has undergone several translations. Translation challenge can account for some of the disjointedness in “Human Acts” but disjointedness is the fabric into which this story is woven.
A modest 218 pages, Kang transports readers to the Gwangju Province in South Korea, during the Gwangju uprising of 1980. Setting the stage for the story: Park Chung-Hee, dictator and military leader ruled since 1961 is assassinated and into his place steps his righthand man, Chun Doo-hwan, a military general with extremist tactics in governance and governing. In one day, Chun Doo-hwan authorized 800,000 bullets for 400,000 citizens, all of which were used and most of whom were killed. Students and factory workers together joined hands to protest the military regime, and as they did bodies piled up inside, outside and just about anywhere people could be found. Gwangju ran out of supplies to tend to the injured, sick and deceased. Bodies were kept in public spaces until they could be identified or buried, and people afraid to leave their homes were unable to identify their beloved in various states of decay and destruction.
While reading “Human Acts” I had to take breaks simply because there is no fat to this novel. There are no pleasant moments in which to find respite from tragic conflict. There is deep, sensate description and layer upon layer of it. A concern for narrative structure must be relinquished because the story moves in a disjointed fashion. The reader is forced into the points of view of various people–a middle school boy, a bereft mother who lost her son, a factory girl begging for humane treatment, a female editor suffocating among censors, and a brother and sister murdered by military agents. Kang uses Second Person Point of View and casts the reader into the story as one of the above mentioned characters. Though the reader stays with none of their roles for very long. This technique creates a deep identification with their plight and that no one escapes the pain.
Silence and the struggle therein is a strong theme in this book. Transcending the ill effect of censorship is not solely an ethical consideration. In fact it is organic as remembering, speaking and telling unleashes the demon and blurs the lines between dream and wake states, past and present and as faith diminished in this context future becomes day-to-day survival. Woven into, “Human Acts” is what challenges the notion of telling the truth for the good of self and other as a necessary consequence of survival.
Written as a personal and political response to this event, Kang wrote thie book when in 2013, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye was inaugurated as president. This event resurfaced painful truth and suffering for all Gwangju-ites. This was a very deep book, that is worthy of reading, discussing, reviewing and coveting so that we can continue to covet our fundamental rights protected and guaranteed in our beloved country, regardless of our challenges at this time.
Han Kang, author